Interpretations of “Do the Right Thing”

Spike Lee’s provocative movie “Do the Right Thing” came out in 1989. He wrote the script in only two weeks based on an incident in Howard Beach, NY where some blacks were run out of a white pizzeria (“Spike Lee,“ IMDB, 1).

By highlighting issues valid for the African American community that have never previously been explored on film, Lee positions himself in direct opposition to the dominant ideology of American cinema and of the African American middle class,  provoking a cultural debate over color and class.

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The neighborhood blacks buy pizza at Sals, an Italian joint which features photos of Italians, but none of blacks .One black character, Buggin’ Out ,complains about this situation, while another, Mookie, tries to placate him. The situation eventually grows out of hand, resulting in death for still another black character Radio Raheed at the hands of white police . As a result blacks burn the pizzeria.

Although American racism is the central theme of the movie, Lee grew up in a post civil rights era as a middle class black with entrée to Morehouse College and NYU film school. Creating a new black aesthetic, he sees individual power and access to the means of representation as significant goals. However, individual success cannot help group endeavor at elevation (Welsh-Assante, 25).

Replete with black “in jokes” and semiotic codes, “Do the Right Thing” promotes

an uncompromising black vision for blacks via the mainstream distribution channels, providing the ability to infiltrate the mainstream white institutions while still providing a sense of the African American perspective. Often linked to his “race” and his “community,” Lee nevertheless claims not to speak for all the thirty five million blacks in America. He crossed the  boundaries that separate the field of independent cinema and Hollywood mass distribution . Although stylized, his films     have an intense focus on violence. As an auteur, he is the embodiment of style and of the societal and cultural situations that undergird it (Willis, 22).

In the time following the release of “Do the Right Thing,” the film’s message became a site of struggle as journal after journal depicted the debate, placing racism on the side of African American resistance, and calling the movie an incitement to riot.

After Radio Raheed’s boom box gets demolished and he dies at the hands of brutal police, the crowd burns Sal’s pizza joint and violence gets out of control.  In a July 18, 1989 article “How Hot is Too Hot?” Newsweek comments that Lee always favored discord, but nothing like what gets shown on “Do the Right Thing”. The author of the article considered it the most controversial movie in recent memory and asked how young urban audiences would react to the film’s climatic portrayal of the riot.  It noted that Lee evaded the real issues, substituting pizza politics for the harsh realities of  urban racial conflict by his references to juxtaposed quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King that appear at the end of the film.

In another article “He’s Got to Have His Way,” Jeanne McDonald of Time Magazine  states that “Lee pressed the right button, acting like an assault rifle. Beneath the arrogance he wore like a badge of honor, lies a more profound racial anger that fueled his move.” (92).

Additionally, in a July 3, 1989 article Richard Corliss says that the film is “like a can of beer in a paper bag- a cool sip of salvation  on a summer day- until it is revealed as a Molotov cocktail.”(45).

In an effort to “get it right” the sociological Eurocentric-American discussion dismisses the film on its own terms. The most appropriate justice the film can provide is the opportunity for blacks, white cops, and Korean grocers equal time to gaze into the camera and mount a string of racial slurs. Using the pizzeria as a basis of personal, family, and community confrontation, the last leading to violence and death, makes this film as real as American cinema gets (Spencer, 228).

The physical features of Radio Raheed with his love hate ring (based on Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter”)and Buggin’ Out with his black power rhetoric, resemble older imagery of the “brutal negro”. (“Spike Lee, IMDB, 1). The close up shots of their race and color  mirror societal threats of the young and angry African American, making both political and economic statements by the way they stroll around the community and show the deep culture of the African American culture. What they say resembles the domestic black nationalism of Malcolm X. By putting excerpts of his speeches on film and by having Public Enemy sing “fight the power,” (“Them’s that got it, got it; them’s that don’t, don’t”).Lee tries to tell his audience to take charge of the economics in their communities. With the words “wake up,” Lee convinces  the African American audience that now is the time to “do the right thing”. However, his “Bullets and Ballots” speech   does not dictate violence. He states that “there is good and bad in America. But the bad seems to have all the power and are in the position to block things that you and I need. We need to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring a conclusion to that situation and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self defense. I don’t call it violence; I call it intelligence.” (Welsh-Assante,225).

Many black women thought Lee’s portrayal of them to be a stereotypical and sexist as  those depicted by white filmmakers, particularly the opening dance sequence performed by Rosie Perez. However, Mookie is not an absentee father, trying to provide for his son, while in an interracial relationship.

All this brings the film to a self consciously African American aesthetic showcasing a new breed of African American filmmakers who show the spiritual power of the word exemplified through African American music and language, such as call and response and ebonics. By capturing Brooklyn in the most vibrant  rays and  rhythms, Lee has demystified the black experience. This is his strongest work, (Ibid, 200).

Working within the system, he succeeds on his own terms. Robert Ebert in his Book of Film states that “ Lee’s work as a whole has been more perceptive and useful than any other cinematic source in helping us understand the situation of the races in the U. S.” (Ebert, 536).

Following Ebert’s statement are some of Lee’s journal entries created during the making of “Do the Right Thing,” in which Lee says that he is “blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who otherwise don’t have access to power and the media” (“Spike Lee,” Wikipedia, 1).

Lee refuses to produce traditional cinematic grammar and syntax, rejecting the Eurocentric enunciations  and substituting  ebonics and rap. Using the Afrocentric           aesthetic demonstrates that the concept of “nommo” is important. The term refers to the spiritual power of the word, displayed through African American music and language. this causes the film to also work on a structuralist level in which the true nature of things may be supposed not to lie  in the things themselves, but in the relationships which we perceive between them. The concept that the world is composed of relationships instead of things is the first principle of the structuralist mode of thinking. (Hawkes, 2).

In other words, the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance by itself, and is in fact determined by its relationship to all the other elements involved in the situation. The attention becomes focused mainly on the form and the importance lies in the work itself and not the author. A distinctive use of language is made, not from the poetic subjects, but on those features that are necessary to language and other solely literary devices such as phonetic patterns, rhyme and metre, the use of sound and meaningful elements in their own right. By making strange poetic art counterbalances the process of habituation encouraged by routine- it defamiliarizes that with which we are  overly familiar and shows a new vision to disrupt stock responses and end by seeing the world instead of just passively recognizing it. This concept of alienation which makes the audience more aware demonstrates that words are not only vehicles for thoughts, but are objects in their own right- a literature of form- a work can only speak of coming into being against a background of speaking of something else. This alienation shocks us out of the aesthetic grip that language has on our perceptions, making us see the structure of language and the world anew ( Stam, 47-54).

By using artistic styles of expression such as spirituals, jazz, rhythm and blues, go go, reggae, soul and rap, call and response and ebonics, the African American experience demonstrates the ethos and pathos of the black community by speaking in concrete forms.

Bringing spiritual solidarity and power   to the images developed in language, the call and response functions as a type of storytelling. While containing multiple cognitive choices, its meaning is subordinated to the context in which it is used. Additionally, the African American music is accelerated in Lee’s films by still photos and unique camera angles which create a sense of urgency of the social problem embedded in the mode.

(Spencer, 64).

Levi Strauss worked with structuralism through mythic structure. The use of the structuralized models of myth provides for the reduction of material to manageable levels. The dominant manner to attain this goal is built on the use of the following terms:

A) surface and deep structure

B) binary oppositions

C) mediation

To discover the structure of a myth, one must explore its deep structure. The surface structure provides us with the narrative; the deep structure with an explication of the myth which is accomplished by discovering the main binary opposition in the deep structure The binary oppositions occur in nature and in the human mind: concepts of opposition such as black/white; nature/culture; day/night; rich/poor. Such terms change depending on the tale or the myth. A binary opposition can be mediated by discovering a solution(mediation) to the opposition created by the binary components. (Glazer, 2).

In any myth the deep structure of the narrative is analyzed through the discovery of binary opposition and the resultant mediation. This process can in itself make new binary oppositions in the story which need to be followed until one comes to a final mediation for the story. Structuralism is an intelligent movement which bases its analysis on the reduction of materials into models referred to as structures. It is paramount to structuralism that it be understood that these structures are not concrete; rather, they are cognitive models of reality. Levi Strauss emphasized that all cultures understood the universe through such models and that mankind comprehends his world on the basis of this mental structure.  (Glazer,2).

Thus, structuralism is the study of basic codes which make narrative possible. Saussure, who created this theory, saw everything as textual, composed of signs. Barthes lists five codes of narrative:

1.Proairetic-things in their sequence.

2.Semes- units of meaning

3. Hermeneutic -code of narrative suspense

4. Symbolic-marks out meaning as binary opposition

5. Reference-various bodies of knowledge which constitute the society (Lyre, 1).

Structuralism can also be seen as the  study of construing the meaning through the text by repetition with difference. The study of mimesis (content) becomes the study of naturalization- the ways in which we create a sense of reality and meaning from the text. Not only are texts are analyzed for their structure of binary opposition , they are also analyzed as they represent the codes and conventions of the culture (Lyre, 1).

There is a deep structure underlying both filmic and linguistic utterances; a given knowledge and a new knowledge. It is important to understand the linguistic filmic utterances. Film narrative theory draws its basic concepts from two primary source of semiotic thought-structuralism and Russian formalism. The question the narrative theory asks of the text of the narrative analysis becomes peeled away  and the natural relationship between signifier and the story  world is revealed, showing the deeper system of cultural association and relationships that are expressed in narrative form.

Poetic language is not used in service to the community, but in order to place in the foreground the act of speech itself (Stam, 6).

Stam continues that language in film is not a “mere adjunct to our grasp of reality, but rather  a form of it.” (7).  By making the familiar strange, and providing alienation,  film makes the audience  capable of grasping the new reality that has been hidden underneath the habitual reality.

In” Do the Right Thing” not only do the characters need to wake up, but also the audience needs to.  They need to wake up to decades and centuries of cultural oppression that has not necessarily gone away, just been swept under the surface. The black community must develop power themselves.

By transforming a habitual surrounding, the pizzeria ,into a strange place of violence and death, Lee shows the audience the racist perspective as embodied in Sal and his prejudiced son, a perspective that must be fought.

The framework of structuralism shows that meaning occurs through difference, through binary oppositions.  Noting these binary oppositions of the different ethnic groups who utter racial slurs at one another, and seeing how the whites (cops, pizzeria owners) react to the blacks, imparts this meaning.

“ Do the Right Thing” can be studied as a text, a code which has within it  the markings of a larger cultural perspective, containing the idea of the subject as opposed to the idea of the individual. That is what the audience is left with in this movie. Although the death of Radio is tragic, the audience is led through to a larger truth: one of racial unease that continues to exist within different racial groups, despite the current thought that all is well.

Signs are ordered through patterns in structuralism. The patterns of oppression continue to appear throughout this film, demonstrating that more work needs to be done in easing tensions between groups.

Other signs are the colors which predict the rage to come- predominantly the reds focusing so much through the film. The binary opposition of the groups: blacks versus whites, old versus young, authority versus the dispossessed explain the film in ways that are understandable to all.

The film can be viewed as what Levi Strauss termed a mythic structure because these oppositions are apparent to every culture. The mediation to the binary opposition of the races that Lee supplies includes “fight the power”; the blacks must take back their communities. However, he also adds that he doesn’t advocate violence, so there is no one answer in which to do so. As previously mentioned, more binary oppositions and mediations are often needed until closure actually occurs.

Lee has made the familiar community which we all take for granted strange. By doing so, he prompts us to look at the deep structures underlying appearances, to observe the binary oppositions and hope for suitable mediation.

As a model of structuralism, “ Do the Right Thing” accomplishes much. As a model of racism, it provides many insights. This is a film of importance.